There was joy, heartache, pain and thousands of runs during Peter Gill’s time playing cricket at club and Staffordshire level. He chats to Sentinel cricket writer CHRIS TRAVERS about his career at the top of the order…
PETER Gill still wonders what might have been. In his mind, he imagines the feeling of raising his bat to acknowledge the applause of the crowd after scoring a century against Australia.
This isn’t a fanciful dream, though. Gill came close to that feat. In fact, he came agonisingly close.
But as Gill walked back to the pavilion at Sunderland’s Ashbrooke ground in 1977, he could console himself with that fact that he would still be part of an historic triumph.
The Staffordshire batsman made 92 as Minor Counties secured a six-wicket victory over the Australians to record their first-ever victory over the Baggy Greens.
Set 207 to win in two hours and four minutes on the second day, Gill backed up his first innings 39 with one of his finest batting performances to take his side to the cusp of their target.
However, one delivery from Gary Cosier, which saw him caught and bowled, dashed his dream of a three-figure score.
It didn’t matter, at least team-wise, as Minor Counties knocked off the runs to defeat an Australia side featuring Doug Walters, David Hookes, Kim Hughes, Kerry O’Keefe, Len Pascoe and Ray Bright.
“When you play in those games, it’s memorable,” recalls Gill. “I had played in 1976 against the West Indies at Torquay and it was my first Minor Counties representative game.
“West Indies were world beaters at the time and I then got selected to play against Australia.
“I was someone who never really relished those games. You stand there thinking ‘what am I doing here?’.
“I was an opening batsman, but batted at number three in both innings against the Aussies. I played well in the first innings.
“I got a bit of a brute from Geoff Dymock, the left-arm seamer. It spat off a length towards my face and it looped up and I was caught.
“But that innings gave me a bit of confidence – and I was a confidence player.”
That confidence flooded in to the second innings as Minor Counties set about their chase.
Gill was pressed in to action early, but was quickly in to his stride. By the time he was out, he’d batted for 132 minutes and struck 17 fours… leaving his side just 39 runs short of victory.
His innings impressed the crowd, but also Daily Telegraph cricket writer Mike Stevenson, who wrote: “Gill batted with power and, for the most part, exemplary technique… demonstrating the class batsman’s extra time in which to read line and length in both defence and attack”.
“I always went in to an innings thinking ‘ok, what’s going to happen’. But you always have your days,” explains Gill.
“I was in straightaway because Mike Nurton, the Oxfordshire player, was out early.
“I batted beautifully that day and played some lovely shots.
“We got to the last 20 overs and were only three wickets down. I reached the 90s and started to get a bit panicky.
“Even now I look back on the innings and think ‘why didn’t I just bat it out?’. People still ask me about it.
“But every ball was a challenge and you’re talking about some of the best bowlers in the world.
“It was still memorable, though. My parents were there watching, I was interviewed by local radio after the game and received a £100 cheque for being named man of the match.”
Gill was 29 years old on that August afternoon when his innings helped to leave the Australians with tails between their legs.
He was in the midst of a rich run of form with the bat, at both club and minor counties level, which saw him, more often than not, top batting averages.
But just five years later, an incident captaining Staffordshire against Shropshire at Shrewsbury changed Gill the batsman.
He collided with team-mate Graham Warner attempting a catch – and he spent the rest of the fixture holed up in hospital.
“Brian Brain was the Shropshire professional and it was the last over, or might even have been the last ball, of their innings,” says Gill.
“I was at short mid-wicket and he slogged one up in to the air. It was one of those days where there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and you had no reference point.
“I looked up and I wasn’t underneath it. I was running away from my position and didn’t realise Graham was coming in from the deep mid-wicket boundary. No-one said anything.
“For show, I put in a dive and went straight in to Graham’s shoulder. I suffered a depressed fracture of my right cheekbone and my eye socket was shattered. I was put in an ambulance and taken to hospital.
“Graham dislocated his shoulder, if I remember, and we were both out for the count. The crunch could be heard all around the ground.”
That left Staffordshire without two of their frontline batsmen for the remainder of the match, which they still managed to draw.
For Gill, though, he had to undergo a stomach-churning operation to save his sight.
“In a way I was fortunate to be playing at Shrewsbury that day because the hospital is right next door, rather than playing out in the sticks,” adds Gill.
“Steve Olley was the microsurgeon at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital and he used to operate on motorbike accident victims.
“He operated on me straightaway. I had a plastic plate put in, which is now part of my eye socket. And I was told later on that they had to take my eye out to get the plate in, then put it back again.
“The surgeon was concerned I would have double vision, but I was fine. But he said I couldn’t afford to be hit there again.
“I had to wear a helmet to bat after that. I was 34 at the time and I wasn’t the same player again.”
Gill had cut his teeth as a cricketer on the school field at Yarlet before graduating to Repton.
He admits that there was no family path to follow on the cricket front, but those years in education – plus a summer camp at Lilleshall – soon saw his potential noticed in higher places.
“I’d been at Yarlet and David Carr, whose brother Donald captained England, was the cricket master,” explained Gill.
“He persuaded my father to send me to Repton. There you had pros and masters who had several blues.
“I’d never picked up a cricket bat in anger until I went to Yarlet, so I’d be about 11 years old.
“There’s no history of any sporting ability in the family. Saying that, though, there is a picture I’ve got when I’m six years old, with my father’s Naval friend David.
“We’re playing in the garden and there’s an upturned scooter as the wickets. It looks like I could play – it was a proper shot on the picture!
“I went away to school at Repton and when I was 15 or 16 I attended a summer camp at Lilleshall which John Ikin, the Staffordshire and England player, ran. It was a two-day affair, so you stayed overnight.”
Gill made such an impact on Ikin that something remarkable happened in the summer of 1966.
Staffordshire were scheduled to play Lancashire seconds at Old Trafford – and Gill, then 18, was selected to make his county debut.
It was remarkable in the fact that Gill had yet to play a first-team game in the North Staffs and South Cheshire League.
“JT (Ikin) just picked me, I’d had no upbringing in the leagues. I played at Old Trafford and then made my first-team debut for Longton on the Saturday,” says Gill.
“Old Trafford was miserable weather-wise and there was no-one there. Dad had taken me two or three years earlier to watch Staffs play Cheshire at Northwich.
“I thought it was fantastic and here I was playing for the county.”
Gill made scores of eight and 11 on his Staffordshire bow, but was soon having plenty of reason to celebrate at club level.
His first Longton appearance against Porthill Park – and his good friend David Hancock – was the start of a run of half-a-dozen matches at the end of that season as Longton won the title.
He was part of the side which claimed a trio of championships between 1968 and 1970 before he took over from Doug Henson as captain in 1973.
A period of rebuilding was required, but Gill masterminded another Longton title win in 1977.
“When I got in to the Longton side at 18, there were county players playing. We had Nasim Ul Ghani, Doug Henson, Roger Deville. It was a terrific time.
“The side then started to age. I was proud to be captain and we had to change the team and we won the title with a young side. Paul Marshall was the pro and he was a relative unknown.
“I had been the youngster of the side for ages, both for Longton and Staffs, but I was influenced by John Ikin, David Carr and Doug Henson.
“You do learn a lot from those guys. You realise in certain situations ‘why did I do that?’.
“When it got to the late 1970s, for about five years I was really good because it was the culmination of experience and ability – you knew when to put your foot down and when not to.
“But I’d say that 1977 was my first really good year and I think I was at my best around that time.”
Gill ended his association with Longton ahead of the 1979 season for a year with Kidsgrove.
He was soon on the move again, though, as he found himself at Stone for the 1980 campaign.
Gill excelled in his new surroundings as he became the first player to score 1,000 runs in the league in a single season – and the runs continued to flow in the following couple of years.
“I enjoyed playing for Stone with Russ Flower as captain,” adds Gill. “We won the Staffs Cup in 1981 when we beat West Bromwich Dartmouth, who were big boys of the Birmingham League at the time. I scored 116 that day.
“In the early 1980s I was scoring runs and there were youngsters coming through and you could give them advice.
“I relished that. And as a batsman you are at your happiest when you are scoring runs. Stone was a great club to play for – a good team with excellent supporters.”
Gill estimates he scored 12,500 league runs in his career, and he was also churning them out for Staffs on the minor counties stage.
After a prolonged period as vice-captain, he was appointed as county skipper in 1982, succeeding Hancock.
However, it was a captaincy stint which only lasted until the end of the summer of 1984. The injury at Shropshire had taken its toll to a degree, while Gill also had to come to terms with a family tragedy.
“I’d had the injury and the following season it took me about a third of the summer to get going,” he recalls. “In 1984 I had a really good season, but my father died in the middle of the year. I had three daughters and a business to run.
“Everything was getting a bit too much, so I resigned as Staffordshire captain.
“In a way it was more of an emotional decision. In practice I should have carried on for another couple of years.”
Gill played a couple of matches for Staffs in the 1985 season before retiring from county duty with 141 Championship appearances under his belt.
There was also the little matter of 6,861 runs and seven centuries on his record. Plus the bonus of 18 wickets.
And there are great memories which Gill still holds dear.
“I remember in one game at Burton, when David Hancock was captain, we were struggling,” says Gill.
“Mike Ikin, who I’d played with for Staffs Under-19s, was bowling to this left hander, over after over. Mike was very intense and getting frustrated he couldn’t get him out.
“At the end of one over David said ‘Thanks, Mike, Gilly have a bowl’. The look Mike gave him…
“I bowled very friendly off-breaks and Mike was at short extra cover. I bowled a half volley which the left hander hit to Mike. He’s caught it, thrown his cap and sweater down and gone red in the face.
“He’d been working on this bloke for 45 minutes and I got him straightaway. David then said ‘thanks, Gilly, have a rest’.
“I was also very proud to be captain. One of the best moments was beating Durham at Stockton in 1982. They hadn’t lost for about six years. As skipper that was a feather in the cap. I walked back to my car with my kit bag ready to drive home thinking ‘this is brilliant’.
“Durham were a very good side. It was a fantastic result.”
Gill had called time on his Staffordshire career, but he continued to play in the league.
But in the late 1980s he opted to walk away from the game.
“I finished in 1988 or 1989, so I was about 40 or 41. That’s nothing these days,” he explains.
“I don’t regret finishing. I set myself high standards and didn’t want to be someone who they talked about and said ‘we can’t drop Peter’. I’d seen that many times before, so I just stopped.
“There were some great times. I also scored centuries and we lost – I did in the Talbot Cup final for Longton against Stone.
“I was a good reader of the game. I could be destructive, but I would play proper cricket shots.
“When I first played in the league they were low-scoring matches and you built a good defence and then got confidence to play shots.
“David Hancock could go over the top for six, but that was never me.”
Gill has since undertaken a spell as Staffs president and enjoyed reminiscing with old pals.
“I played with some nice people and had an enjoyable career,” he adds. “Cricket is a community and although there are rivalries, there are also friendships.”